Jun 10, 1999

NASA Contributes Research and Technology To the War Against Cancer

NASA Contributes Research and Technology
To the War Against Cancer

October 1, 1998 (NASA press release)

In observance of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, during October NASA will release information on new ways aerospace research and technology is helping understand, detect and treat all types of cancer. A fact sheet highlights diagnostic technology currently available and features NASA research and technology that may improve cancer diagnosis, surgical procedures and drug therapies in the future.

Five critical cancer experiments will be conducted on upcoming Space Shuttle mission STS-95, currently targeted for launch on Oct. 29. A fact sheet describing these experiments will be available closer to launch.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death for Americans. According to the National Cancer Society, this year 564,800 Americans are expected to die of cancer -- more than 1,500 people a day. Men have a 1 in 2 lifetime risk of developing cancer and for women the risk is 1 in 3. The National Cancer Institute estimates overall annual costs for cancer at $107 billion.



Digital Breast Imaging Technology

Silicon chips used in the Hubble Space Telescope were adapted to more accurately detect tiny spots in breast tissue. Using a needle, doctors more accurately extract suspicious tissue for analysis, thereby eliminating painful surgery. This procedure also eliminates scarring or disfigurement, requires half the time of traditional techniques, reduces exposure to x-rays and greatly reduces costs.

MRI and CAT Scans

Digital signal processing was pioneered at NASA for use during the Apollo Lunar landings to computer-enhance pictures of the Moon. This technology was used in a broad range of Earthbound medical and diagnostic tools, including advanced body imaging techniques known as CT, CAT Scan and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).



Tissue Growth Holds Key To Better Treatments

NASA uses the microgravity of space to grow human tissue for research and transplantation and to gain valuable knowledge important to the treatment of cancer. The NASA-designed Bioreactor is a unique tissue culture chamber, the size of a home sewing machine, that grows cells in three dimensions.

These tissues, similar to tissues found in the body, will help scientists understand cancer growth and how the human immune system responds. The bioreactor grows renal cells that produce hormones needed by patients undergoing cancer chemotherapy. Also, researchers grow immune cells -- found in blood, bone marrow and immune systems -- that are responsible for fighting diseases and are often needed by patients undergoing chemotherapy, radiation therapy or living with diseases of the immune system. By testing three-dimensional tissues for sensitivity to chemotherapy and hormonal therapy, researchers gain valuable knowledge important to the understanding and treatment of breast, skin, prostate, ovary, bone and colon cancers.


Outside Earth's atmosphere and beyond low Earth orbit, space crews may be exposed to different types of potentially harmful radiation. NASA's space radiation research focuses on understanding how different kinds of space radiation alter living tissue and developing ways to prevent damage to healthy tissue or accelerating the repair of damaged tissue. Knowledge gained through space radiation research will contribute to understanding how radiation causes and cures cancer as well as the process by which cancer develops.



According to the National Cancer Society, screening exams conducted by health care professionals can result in the detection of cancers of the breast, colon, rectum, cervix, prostate, testis, tongue, mouth and skin at earlier stages, when treatment is more likely to be successful. Over one million new cancer cases are expected to be diagnosed this year. If all Americans participated in regular cancer screening, the Cancer Society estimates that nearly 95 percent of them would have a 5-year survival rate.

Next Generation Digital Imaging Mammography

Technology from space-based instruments studying the atmosphere will soon be in the medical examination room. NASA is developing a mammogram to produce an image of the entire breast and provide a better image -- two times better than currently available -- to identify tumors. Current technology does not allow doctors to view the entire breast. This approach is significant because it will accommodate different tissue density, which is particularly important for younger women, who have more dense tissue.


NASA expertise in transmitting high-resolution digitized photographs using satellite networks will soon link doctors in rural areas to medical experts across the country. The satellite technology is more cost-effective and faster than traditional transmission of data through telephone lines.

Three-Dimensional Tissue Images

NASA is developing virtual reality computer technology to treat astronauts in possible medical emergencies. One application of the software combines a series of MRI scans to create a clear, accurate, three-dimensional image of tumor tissue. Physicians wearing 3-D glasses can see the tissue from all angles on the computer screen. Once the technique is fully developed, physicians will be able to visualize borders of tumors more clearly than current technology allows.

Esophagus Biopsy

The National Institutes of Health recently approved a Small Business Technology Transfer task for an endoscope with a 200 megahertz ultrasonic probing capability to allow examination of the esophagus at the cellular level to view such diseases as cancer. The work will be done by researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, with the University of Southern California School of Medicine and QMI, a small company located in Costa Mesa, CA, specializing in ultrasonic instrumentation. The work applies JPL's extensive research in ultrasonics and ultrasonic motors for the manipulation of the probe and electroactive polymers for biopsies.

Improved Resolution

Software and computer technology originally developed to improve images of Earth and planets will allow physicians to rapidly identify and display carcinomas that otherwise might go undetected. CT, MRI, and PET images can be fused resulting in greatly enhanced resolution of tissue. Clinicians, sitting at a workstation, can interactively zoom closer or farther away, as well as slice or rotate the image, for any desired view to identify potential tumors and possible metastatic disease.



This year 1,228,600 new cases of cancer are expected to be diagnosed. About 4 of 10 patients who get cancer this year are expected to be alive five years after diagnosis.

Smart Robot "Brain Surgeon"

Technology being developed for surgery on astronauts in space is being adapted to help physicians operate on delicate parts of the human body, including the brain and breast. The robot maps the physical characteristics of the brain prior to surgery, allowing surgeons to make precise movements and reduce potential damage to nearby healthy tissue. Researchers plan to teach the robot to feel and see tumors in other parts of the body to determine severity and appropriate treatment. The density of cancerous tissue is different from healthy tissue. While a surgeon can, through experience, learn to feel the difference, the robot uses a smaller, less invasive probe that makes more delicate and precise movements, thus reducing damage to healthy tissue and arteries.

Reconstruction Surgery

The virtual reality computer technology is also being developed to assist surgeons with complex facial reconstruction. The surgeon performs virtual surgery on the 3-D computer image of the patient using a big-screen workbench, special gloves, computer tracking wands and software to replace soft tissues to see how the patient may look after facial reconstruction. This technology may help mastectomy patients needing breast reconstruction and help in other surgical procedures such as correcting deformities of the head and face.



The human body has 150,000 different proteins. Diseases can occur because a protein stops working the way it was intended or because a foreign protein enters the body as a bacterium or virus. The bacterium or virus invades and alters the healthy host protein, then reproduces itself. In space, researchers can grow high-quality crystals of proteins that diseases, such as cancer, need to survive and reproduce. The crystals allow researchers to see and understand the protein's structure and design drugs to combat its harmful effects.

Space Research Shines Light on Tumors to Save Lives

Special lights developed to grow plants in space may help treat cancer and save lives on Earth. In this aggressive therapy, the doctor injects a light-sensitive, cancer-fighting drug into the patient's bloodstream. The drug attaches to the affected tissue. The doctor places a device the size of a small finger near the tissue. The device emits light, activating the drug. The drug penetrates and destroys only affected tissue. The light source remains cool to the touch, is mechanically more reliable than lasers and other light sources used to treat cancer, and illuminates through all nearby tissues. This innovative, photodynamic procedure will be used in critical medical cases.

New Drug for Melanoma

A treatment for a deadly skin cancer is being tested through the joint research efforts of NASA and the Center for Macromolecular Crystallography of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and BioCryst Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Birmingham. In the past, patients suffering from the cancer known as cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, have had no hope of recovery. Once the cancer moved through the skin to the lymph glands, there was no treatment available and patients typically would not live longer than three years after diagnosis.

In January 1998, the Food and Drug Administration approved Proleukin (tm) for the treatment of patients with the cancer called metastic melanoma. Human clinical trials are also underway for therapies for other diseases such as AIDS. Research for the new drug was conducted in space.

Multi-layer Microcapsules Help Drug Delivery/Fight Tumors

Multi-layer microcapsules improve delivery of anti-cancer drugs during chemotherapy treatment. These unique capsules, which resemble miniature liquid-filled balloons the size of blood cells, deliver FDA-approved, anti-tumor drugs by injection into main arteries leading to tumors. When the microcapsules arrive, they form emboli to reduce the blood supply to the tumor and provide sustained release of cytotoxic drugs to tumor cells. So far, six different drugs have been encapsulated, including two anti-tumor drugs, an immune stimulant, antibiotics, a clot-dissolving enzyme and an anti-nauseant. The feasibility of microencapsulation of multiple complementary drugs and drug crystals has also been demonstrated. A company is actively soliciting research partners from the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries to conduct clinical trials, optimize microcapsule production and to sub-license specific microcapsule products for manufacturing and marketing.


Return to NASA using space incubator to understand breast cancer